Cary-Grove quarterback Quinn Baker took the snap and stepped to his right, sticking the ball in the belly of fullback Kyle Norberg, then yanking it back.
Baker tossed quickly to running back Ryan Mahoney, who raced around running back Kaene Connington’s block on the right end, untouched, for a 63-yard touchdown against Lake Forest in their 2012 Class 6A football playoff semifinal game.
It was only one play to tie the score in the first quarter, but it seemed like much more. It marked the start of a long and frustrating afternoon for Lake Forest’s defense, which had no answer for the Trojans’ triple-option offense.
When C-G was done, it had 512 total yards, a 42-21 victory and a third trip to the state championship game. Mahoney, Norberg and Baker all rushed for more than 100 yards.
That game serves as a prime example why opponents rank facing a proficient option offense, like those at C-G and Prairie Ridge, high on their list of things they least like to do. Particularly in the postseason.
“Once you get into the playoffs and those teams haven’t seen an option team, we like to think that’s a huge advantage,” C-G coach Brad Seaburg said.
Prairie Ridge coach Chris Schremp concurred.
“I hate when more people run [option],” Schremp said. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful in the playoffs. A good family friend of mine had a son on Fenwick’s team [in 2010] and they thought they were going to kick our butts. After the game, he said, ‘That option of yours … we never knew who had the ball.’ ”
In an era when spread offenses, often using some option elements, have become the norm, C-G and Prairie Ridge are thriving with an offense more than 70 years old.
C-G won the Class 6A state championship in 2009 and was runner-up in 2012. The Trojans have the longest current playoff string of any area team (10 years) and are 24-9 with seven quarterfinal appearances in that span.
Prairie Ridge accomplished something no other Fox Valley Conference team has done, reaching three consecutive playoff semifinals, the last culminated with the 2011 Class 6A state title. The Wolves are 17-7 in the playoffs since 2005 and have made the quarterfinals five of their last six trips.
Woodstock North coach Jeff Schroeder also runs a triple-option attack, but one that looks a bit different in formations than C-G's and Prairie Ridge's. The Thunder went 14-7 with two Class 5A playoff appearances in the program’s second and third years but missed the playoffs last season.
Seaburg and Schremp say an option offense offers many advantages with its speed, the ability to have smaller offensive linemen and versatility. With the headaches teams like Lake Forest suffered in 2012, opponents would agree.
“If you take away something, you give something else up,” Lake Forest coach Chuck Spagnoli said after that game. “You’re not able to practice against it the way they run it.”
Any talk about option football locally starts with former Crystal Lake Central coach Bill Mack, who ran some option with the Tigers but jumped into the offense totally after retiring from high school coaching and teaching.
Wheaton College coach J.R. Bishop, a good friend of Mack’s, asked him to be offensive coordinator. In order to do that and run option, Mack and Bishop went to NCAA Division II powerhouse Georgia Southern and spoke with coach Erk Russell, one of the best option minds in the country.
Mack later ran option as head coach at North Central College and helped numerous high school teams – C-G, Prairie Ridge and Carmel – install option offenses. Carmel ran it so well it won the 2003 Class 6A state championship, 54-26, over Bloomington, with its backup quarterback John Solan running the option.
“There’s a lot of offenses, and they’re all good – somebody’s winning with it somewhere,” Mack said. “I don’t think option demands a skill in terms of grading at any position. Nobody can win with poor personnel, but there are more things you can do in the option. You don’t really need big linemen. Timing and blocking and space are much more important than flat-out speed.”
Mack’s sagelike advice helped former C-G coach Bruce Kay win the state title in 2009. Like Mack at Central, Kay had used option earlier in his career, but later went all-in with the offense. The first year the Trojans went triple-option, quarterback Brian Mitz led them to the Class 7A state championship game.
“You’re not asking a lineman to block another lineman who’s bigger,” Kay said. “They’re going to release and let that guy go, and the quarterback has to read him. Who do you want to tackle, the fullback or the quarterback? In essence, if the quarterback makes the correct read, we’ve now taken one of their best players out of their defense because he’s tackling a guy without the ball.”
The idea of option is that the quarterback will read two players, neither of whom are blocked, creating a numerical advantage for the offense. The father of the option, former Missouri coach Don Faurot, got the idea from watching fast breaks in basketball. Faurot reasoned that one defender cannot stop two players if the ball is handled correctly, and he adapted that to football.
“The key to the offense is it gives you a chance to metamorphose during the game, play by play by play,” Mack said. “It’s really not what they’re doing, it’s how well you do what you do and how quickly you recognize what’s going on on the field and take advantage of it. For me, personally, the [opponent] can have my playbook if they want it. That would help me, but that’s me.”
In 2002, Schremp was still new as the Wolves' head coach and utilized a wide-open offense with 6-foot-6 quarterback Todd Babington slinging the ball over the field.
It was productive, but Schremp saw smaller linemen coming up in the program and worried about protecting his quarterbacks. He had played option at Westchester St. Joseph, but was not well-versed in the offense.
He called Mack.
“It was two days a week, 3 to 6 o’clock, I’d sit at his kitchen table and I’d leave with the worst headache,” Schremp said. “I’d come home and Sherry would say, ‘Why do you go to those meetings? They kill you.’ ”
Schremp was cramming for the test that next season.
Seaburg had an easier transition to option. He coached 10 years at C-G, eight as head sophomore coach, which allowed him to learn the option well under Kay and Mack.
Both coaches run the same drills for backs and linemen, drills they have picked up from some of the nation’s top college coaches.
Schremp spent his spring break with offensive coordinator Joe Terhaar at Georgia Tech, picking the brain of Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson. Seaburg had spoken with Johnson years before, when Johnson was at Navy. Seaburg and Kay also are close with coaches at The Citadel, a D-I school in Charleston, S.C. Those coaches rode the option at Lenoir-Rhyne (N.C.) to a D-II runner-up finish last season before landing new jobs.
“Option coaches are kind of like a cult,” Seaburg said. “We’re definitely a minority, and we all kind of stick together.”
Hard-core option fanatics are sold on its versatility. Schremp says teams occasionally “make stuff up” on defense to contend with the option.
“They’ve practiced it two days, now go run it on Friday,” he said. “It rarely works.”
The option may seem like dial-up in a digital world to some, but not to the option cult.
“People ask me lots of times, ‘Why don’t you go to the spread? Everybody’s doing the spread,” Schremp said. “That’s why I don’t go to the spread.”